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Carbon Monoxide Detectors and the Law

posted on Fri, Jun 24 2011 11:37 am by Jon S. Vernick

Carbon Monoxide Detector
I teach a course on injury prevention for graduate students. Early in the course, I engage the class in a little exercise (shamelessly borrowed from a colleague). First I ask all of the students to stand.  Then I tell them to remain standing if they wore their seatbelt the last time they were in a car. Seat belt use rates are about 85 percent nationally; nearly all the students remain standing. Next I tell them to remain standing if they have a smoke alarm in their home or apartment. Again, almost all are still standing.

Then I ask about carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in the home. With a loud thud, a large group of (relieved) students slump into their chairs. Why the difference?

Is it because carbon monoxide is not really dangerous?

No. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas caused by incomplete combustion of fuel, including cooking or heating fuel in the home. Unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, from sources other than fires in buildings, kills more than 400 people each year and sends another 15,000 to the hospital.

Is it because there are major barriers to acquiring and installing CO detectors?

No. Carbon monoxide detectors are relatively inexpensive (typically about $10 -$25), easy to install (many just plug into an electric socket but also have a battery back-up), and effective ways to warn residents about a dangerous build-up of CO.

Is it that the students don’t know they should have a CO detector?

No. When I ask, it’s clear that all (or nearly all) of the students were aware that CO detectors exist and that they would lower risk of injury, but many had still not acquired them. One goal of the classroom exercise is to show the students that knowledge about injury risks and countermeasures may be necessary for action but, by itself, is often insufficient.

This is where the law can be an enormously important tool for injury prevention. Many states and localities have laws mandating smoke alarms in residential buildings.

But not as many require carbon monoxide detectors. Just as importantly, for almost any law to be successful, it must be effectively publicized and enforced. And we’ve had a many year head start publicizing the need for smoke alarms.

The law can also provide information about social norms – attitudes and behaviors expected of a reasonable citizen – in this case, whether to have a CO or smoke alarm. One day, when most of my students remain standing when asked about CO detectors, I’ll know that that the norm (and their risk of injury) has changed.

This information was developed by Jon S. Vernick, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy; and partner of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
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